Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping will visit the White House in Washington on February 14 and then visit Iowa and California, at the invitation of Vice-President Biden. The visit of China’s leader-in-waiting offers an important opportunity for the two major powers to produce some positive forward momentum in their complicated relationship. Although there have been ministerial level exchanges over the past year, and Vice President Biden visited China last summer, there has been an evident “drift” and increasing tensions in Sino-American relations that date back at least to 2009 (only briefly stabilized by President Hu Jintao’s successful state visit to the United States in January 2011).
On the surface bilateral relations are formal and interactive—but if one scratches beneath the surface, the mutual distrust and problem areas are readily evident to participants and observers. As Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai—the Chinese official in charge of managing relations with the U.S.—candidly noted on February 7 in a speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Shanghai Communiqué and President Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China: “There are indeed mutual trust deficits between our two countries.” Cui went on to observe that “both countries should develop a comprehensive, objective, and realistic understanding of each other’s strategic intentions. As both are major powers, even trivial misjudgment of each other’s strategic intentions may bring about severe consequences.”
It is true that, despite many efforts over four decades, the two nations still lack mutual strategic trust. In this observer’s opinion, the current strategic distrust exists for three main reasons.
The first is China’s domestic political system. For Americans, this has been an obstacle in relations since the Cold War—although U.S. discontent was often put aside in pragmatic pursuit of broader strategic and economic goals. But the fact remains that China’s one-party state produces discomfort and distrust on the part of many Americans. This is particularly the case following the collapse of other communist party-states in 1989-1991, the “color revolutions” in Central Asia in the 1990s-2000s, and more recently with the Arab Spring uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East. U.S. discontent with Chinese Communist Party rule is aggravated by imprisonment of dissidents, human rights abuses, and the government’s forceful crackdown on ethnic groups in Tibet and Xinjiang.
So, for the United States, China’s domestic political system is an underlying irritant in the relationship—as it is difficult to trust and partner with a nation that holds different and non-democratic political values. China, of course, believes that such political differences should not be an impediment to normal relations, should be put aside, and any criticism of China’s domestic behavior is interference in sovereign affairs.
The second area of mutual strategic distrust concerns the security structure in the Asia-Pacific region. A classic “security dilemma” is evident. The U.S. (and many Asian nations) question and worry about the pace and scope of China’s military modernization program—while China builds up, at least in part, in response to America’s own regional buildup. Since November 2011 the United States has made clear that its forward military presence in Asia would be maintained, even enhanced, as part of a broader strategic reorientation (“pivot”) towards the region. Potential for accidents to occur between the Chinese and American militaries is real and increasing. Despite resuming military exchanges, strategic mistrust between the two defense, strategic, and intelligence communities is evident. Much reassurance work remains to be done to enhance mutual strategic trust between these communities.
The third area concerns issues of global governance. Since 2005, the United States has called on China to contribute more as a “responsible stakeholder” to global governance—preferably in partnership with Washington. Yet, China has remained hesitant and relatively passive in this realm—and, sometimes, even resistant. Recent examples of China’s resistance have been its twin vetoes (with Russia) of UN Security Council resolutions concerning Syria. Further, Washington remains very concerned about North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs, and very frustrated with China’s restrained role in the international effort to bring pressure to bear on Pyongyang and Tehran to halt these programs. Climate change, foreign aid, and energy security have been other contested areas of global governance.
These are just three of the areas of strategic distrust currently existing between Beijing and Washington. To be sure, from China’s perspective, continuing American arms sales to Taiwan remain a further profound source of irritation and distrust.
Vice-President Xi Jinping’s visit offers an opportunity to engage in serious discussion of these sources of mutual strategic mistrust. Hopefully, the two sides will take advantage of the opportunity. The relationship is too important for each nation and the world to permit the strategic distrust to fester and deepen.
David Shambaugh is a Professor and the Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, and a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.